Out of ideas for a dog
This is sort of hard to write, and probably too long and rambly, but I felt like HF was a place where I'd get well-reasoned, and maybe conflicting, opinions. And I feel like I don't have anywhere else to get advice, so here goes.
We have a 6ish year old "lab mix," Gus, who we adopted about 5 years ago from one of those "New England angels" type places, you know, the kind of rescue that adopts dogs from high kill southern shelters and brings them up north for adoption. When we got him, he had cycled through a couple of foster homes, having bitten two people in that time, and had already been adopted and given back to the rescue once. There wasn't really much backstory on him aside from the fact that he was found as a puppy, alone, roaming in Memphis. So, no knowledge of his mom or littermates. You might already be reasonably asking, "why the heck would you knowingly take on THAT?" And, you wouldn't be wrong.
Perhaps because of being too much of a bleeding heart, and perhaps because my husband and I had had a lot of success turning another older, shelter rescue who was very shy and terrified of people into a great dog for us, we took on Gus. We thought that with calm, quiet handling and a consistent routine, we'd be able to give him a happy life, like we had with our previous dog Carter. From the beginning, Gus was sort of "odd," and didn't seem to retain basic obedience training very well. But, we don't have kids and we have a very stable, consistent routine (I work from home, husband is up early every day to feed/walk same time each day) so we thought we just needed more time to help him settle in. I should also note that he came to us with a prescription for Prozac. He has been on 30 mg/day of Prozac all this time. To translate, that's a high dose for an adult man. This had been prescribed to him based on behavioral evaluation for the rescue by a vet at Tufts. We had a post-adoption consultation with the behaviorist vet who told us she thought with time, he might be able to be weaned off it. A year in, we did another consultation with her and our regular vet, and they all agreed he could not come off it.
So fast forward a couple of years, we established sort of an uneasy truce with this dog, but he definitely never warmed up to people, not even us. At the time, we had another, older, love bug of a female dog who was the world's friendliest, kindest soul. I think her radiant positive energy made it easier to just sort of ignore the lackluster personality of Gus. He was difficult though. It was very hard to have people over because he was so aggressive to anyone who came into the house. We tried upping his exercise (my husband runs 4-6 miles/day), but he refused to run with my husband. They'd get about a mile and he'd just hurl himself on the ground and refuse to get up and go any further (he has always been nothing but healthy, physically). Since exercise had always been an effective strategy with our first "difficult" dog, but was not an option with Gus, we started looking for a trainer.
The first trainer was an admittedly bad choice on our part. He was sort of the Cesar Milan style disciplinarian who, for our first "session," had us meet him on a busy downtown street and walk Gus through cars, people, and other dogs (we lived on a rural farm and Gus had never been downtown with us). Obviously that was not a good experience for anyone, but I don't blame the dog for that.
Second trainer was recommended by a vet practice that we had been referred to because of their specialty in dogs with behavior problems. She came to our house, interviewed us, completed an assessment. She told us that when she walked in the door, she felt that he was one of the small proportion of dogs she sees who she gave more than a 50/50 chance of attacking her on first meeting. When she understood just how quiet, calm, routine, and basically BORING our environment was, she said something that has stayed with us since then: if he couldn't thrive in a house like ours, he probably wasn't going to thrive anywhere. After working with him a few more times, she basically concluded that he was still generally acting like a feral dog who was held together just enough by the meds that he could tolerate having to live with people. But he was never relaxed, always anxious and on high alert. She basically told us that it wasn't worth us wasting our money to have her keep working with him- she didn't see a path to him improving.
Around that time (2018) we moved to a larger, more rural farm. We thought that could be a great change. It's a rural dirt road, some traffic, but lots of wide open fields and woods. And, for the first couple of months, he did seem to thrive. Letting him run and romp in the fields seemed to bring him some peace and joy. His demeanor improved. That was positive. But then we had some incidents with traffic. Not only would he chase cars that went by, but he would actually physically throw himself into the car. One time an very nice elderly gentleman was driving by, the dog charged at the car and threw his entire body against the back side door, denting it. The poor man stopped and felt terrible, asked what he could have done to avoid hitting him. I tried to explain that he hadn't hit the dog, the dog had hit him. After that, Gus lost offleash outdoor privileges. I was not willing to risk an accident. And, lots of people bike or ride/drive their horses on our road, and no way I would allow that kind of wreck. So, back to walking on leash ~2 miles/day.
Last May, our older dog sadly passed away. I don't know if his behavior actually changed after she died, or if we just no longer had the buffer of her happy personality to counterbalance his. But since then, our ability to tolerate his behavior has definitely been strained. He's still a disaster if people come over. He has systematically rubbed all the fur off his ears and nose. He is constantly licking his lips nervously. I'll look up from my computer during the day and see him sitting across the room, staring at the wall and just shaking violently. If I lock him in an enclosed room (let's say someone is over, so we lock him in our bedroom or in a large bathroom, where he has his own bed), he will hurl himself at the door as violently as Kujo. He will go through 24 hours where he refuses to go outside and go to the bathroom (he doesn't have an accident, he just won't walk out the door and holds it all in). He's lost about 5 pounds, and he's already a lean dog as it is so you can see every rib and backbone, even after increasing his food at the recommendation of the vet after a visit specifically about his weight loss. In the middle of the night, he'll crawl under our bed and shake violently, refusing to come out (not that anything soothes him anyway).
All of these behaviors are, of course, annoying. It's also exhausting walking around on eggshells in your own house, trying not to upset the dog. And now with this nighttime behavior of crawling back and forth under the bed and shaking and whining all night, we're not getting any sleep. If we try to put him in another room overnight, he alternates between desperate whines and trying to tear down the door. And also, it just seems so wrong to have a dog doped up on human-level drugs.
So today, my husband took him to our small animal vet practice to reassess where things are. He and I had talked seriously about whether euthanasia was an option. We both agreed it could be but wanted to see what the vet said. The vet who was there was not one who had seen him before, so my husband ran through his history and the litany of recent behaviors (essentially everything I wrote above) and said we really felt we had run out of ideas for anything that could help him, and that we just felt that he wasn't happy or relaxed in his own skin. My husband also shared that we were wondering if euthanasia should be discussed. When he said that, she basically berated him and said that she "sees this sort of behavior all the time." She said euthanasia is beyond extreme because there are plenty of dogs who act like this- or worse- at the animal shelter where she is also a vet. She gave us a referral to another behaviorist vet practice, and she said they would up his drug cocktail (now combining multiple drugs) and once he was that drugged up, a new behaviorist could restart his training. And if we were not willing to do that, we should surrender him at her animal shelter and there are plenty of people who would be able to adopt him and turn him around. And if not, he'd just live at the shelter forever as an office pet with the staff. Can't say I expected THAT to be the vet's advice!
So here we are today. I don't like this dog. He doesn't like us. He doesn't like anything. But my husband and I have both agreed we are not passing this problem on to someone else. I take to heart what the trainer said when she said a dog like this needs a calm, routine environment, and if he's still not adjusting to living with people, he probably won't. I guess that means we are just STUCK with him, it seems.
Thank you for reading my novel. It helps to just put it all on paper, even though I have no idea how to we manage our way through this. I don't know that I'm even asking for advice, but if you have reactions, I'm all ears. Am I overreacting? Is this normal behavior for a dog? Are there really that many dogs living on a high-dosage drug cocktail to get through the day?